Better Off Dead?

iZombie’s unconventional take on the cop procedural and The Girl with All the Gifts’ post-apocalyptic vision of a world in which “hungries” have taken over would initially seem to have very little in common. Yet each makes a convincing case for accepting human extinction as a natural part of the life/death continuum, asking us to consider the question: are we better off dead?

With roots in 17th and 18th century Haiti, the zombie has long been a malleable figure, a “tabula rasa” as Kyle Bishop puts it, easily “rewritten and reused.” Haitian mythology encapsulated the fear and threat of slavery under French colonial rule – to become a zombie was to be confined within a soulless body, trapped in an eternal afterlife of enslavement. More recently, the zombie’s lack of free will, individual consciousness or the ability to communicate are often read as a metaphor for the alienation of modernity.

The zombie protagonists film and television have produced over the last few years diverge significantly from their lumbering and groaning forebears. In the contemporary zombie narrative, death appears to offer more prospects for fulfilment than life. Deborah Christie & Sarah Juliet Lauro, interested in the hybridity of human and zombie, insist that:

“We must ask ourselves: Are zombies becoming more human, or are humans becoming more like zombies?”

A recent flurry of TV shows like Santa Clarita Diet and In the Flesh, and films like Life After Beth and Warm Bodies suggests that the zombie is no longer our enemy; we are the zombie, the zombie is us. Moreover, the growing ubiquity of the female zombie protagonist (along with In the Flesh’s queer male protagonist) makes a striking departure from the genre’s customary focus on intrepid male heroes battling zombie foes.

“What’s the worst that can happen?”

In its first episode, iZombie’s Liv Moore is an overachieving medical resident, she’s smart, driven, and her life has thus far followed a strict goal-oriented trajectory. She’d much rather be working than at a party with her fiancée. “What’s the worst that can happen?” he asks. Cut to Liv taking cover under a table as her fellow partygoers are devoured by zombies. The remainder of the episode sees Liv adjust to her undead existence and sets up the core conceit of the show. Liv trades her prestigious career for a job at the morgue, providing handy access to the sustenance she needs to prevent her from going “Romero.” Not only that, but the brains she consumes trigger visions of the dead person’s last moments, enabling her to solve their murders.

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It’s the brain of a free-spirited artist who sparks an epiphany, as Liv comes to realise that “there were parts of me that were dead even before I became a zombie.” Ironically, dying offers Liv a chance to, well, live. The zombie virus is imbued with potential, offering a more fulfilling life than the familiar trajectory of the single-minded career woman and the inexorable grind towards marriage and eventual motherhood. The series implicitly questions the social norms and economic necessities influencing Liv’s dedication to a traditional career track through the realization of her stifled potential. Clearly the zombie has mutated; no longer a metaphor for the mindless drudgery of capitalism, but now embodying the solution to living under its constraints.

In The Girl with All the Gifts, death isn’t the means to find fulfilment within the familiar structures of our own lives. Death is the new world order, and Melanie (Sennia Nenua) is the “special girl” who ushers in the next evolutionary era. Adapted from MR Carey’s novel, GWATG introduces us to a world ravaged by a mysterious fungal infection. Braindead “first-generation” zombies sway mindlessly in the streets until sound or motion activates their rapacious appetite for human flesh. It’s the second generation, “able to think and interact with their environment,” who prove to be the only hope for repopulating the planet. The film introduces us to Melanie and her classmates confined within a military prison compound where Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine) straps the children into wheelchairs, ruthless scientist Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close) conducts fatal experiments on them, and the lovely Miss Justineau teaches them Greek mythology. After a brutal zombie attack on the compound, the rag-tag group (along with Fisayo Akinade’s wholesome Private Kieran Gallagher) treks across London looking for survivors.

The Girl With All The Gifts

Contagion

Credited for revitalizing the zombie horror genre in 2002, 28 Days Later is a classic contagion narrative, mobilizing global anxieties about infection and mass outbreaks. London is a desolate wasteland and the virus results in the chaotic destruction of society. Viral infection is a source of utter terror, to be feared and overcome. At the centre of this narrative is the human, whose survival is paramount.

By contrast feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti is interested in an ethical model that takes all forms of life into account. Following the posthumanist tradition that seeks to (among other goals) decentre the human, Braidotti writes that when our own mortality is located as the defining centre of being, our entire social contract is predicated on survival in ways that are often detrimental to a public or planetary good. In other words, humans are merely another part of the world, far from the most important beings inhabiting it.

Although GWATG also plays on fears of contagion via the fungal infection threatening our collective survival, the film’s resolution deviates radically from the usual apocalyptic narrative. Dr Caldwell is convinced that Melanie’s brain is the key to developing a vaccine that will save the human race. The antithesis of Braidotti’s philosophy, Caldwell imagines our extinction as “the end of the world,” as though without humans populating the Earth, all other life forms are meaningless. Unlike Dr Caldwell’s humanist perspective, the film itself, however, imagines life as a continuum where the death of our species is simply an inevitable evolutionary moment.

When faced with an irreversible decision that will make the pathogen airborne (thus wiping out what little remains of humanity), Melanie asks Dr Caldwell, quite reasonably, why she ought to sacrifice herself to save humanity. Why do humans deserve to live above any other species? Yet, far from the bleak urgency of 28 Days Later, the film’s vision of the end of the world is luminous. Simon Dennis’ striking cinematography brings the zombie horror genre back to life with hazy, vibrant shots of Melanie playfully exploring unfamiliar terrain, greenery springing up in the streets, foliage trailing over deserted shop-fronts. Without humans, the film suggests, the world will be just fine, perhaps even flourish. The end of the world is in fact a new beginning, a revival.

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Braidotti writes that “sustainability does assume faith in a future, and also a sense of responsibility for ‘passing on’ to future generations a world that is liveable and worth living in”. With vastly different approaches, iZombie and GWATG question the ways we live, and whether in fact we ought to live at all. However, far from nihilistic, they retain a refreshing optimism for the future. We can live differently within the constraints of our society, suggests iZombie, and GWATG has immense faith in a sustainable, livable future – simply one that doesn’t belong to us. As Melanie says to Sergeant Parks before he’s infected, “It’s not over, it’s just not yours anymore.”

References

Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman. 2013. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Deborah Christie & Sarah Juliet Lauro. 2011. ‘Introduction,’ Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-human. 2011. New York: Fordham University Press.

Resilient Girlhood

Whether in fictional narrative or in the immediacy of our own lived realities, Lauren Berlant (2011) argues that our relationship to genre is what constructs our expectations of how an event is likely to unfold. Both fictional and lived genres therefore provide us with conceptual structuring principles for how our lives are most likely to progress. In this sense, the genres we encounter have the capacity to orient our desire towards particular ways of living, and away from others. The primary genres addressing women and girls over the last two decades were dominated by a postfeminist culture that appeared to offer women freedom through their spending power, choice of consumer products and performance of an ‘up for it’ sexuality. Broadly speaking, postfeminism denotes a shift in cultural discourse away from ostensibly old-fashioned political terms like ‘sexism’ and ‘women’s rights’, and a focus instead on a more generalised ideal of ‘empowerment’ for women, primarily through their individual economic and sexual independence.

These examples of gendered ideals about how to live fulfilling lives as women and girls continue to inform our popular mainstream narratives. The ubiquity of such mainstream conventions produces an affective response, even in cases where we may not personally adhere to these ways of living. This means that we intuitively recognise that following gendered expectations offers the promise of social inclusion, happiness and fulfilment. My research explores the aftermath of the cultural dominance of postfeminist genres, investigating the kinds of gendered identities and genre norms that emerge in its wake. The impact of postfeminism is only now beginning to crystallise, coinciding with a media resurgence of multiple new strands of feminism. Within this context, I draw on the work of feminist sound studies scholar Robin James who investigates ‘resilience’ as one of the key defining features of contemporary girlhood. In particular, I analyse how resilience has become a gendered trait or expectation of female characters, and how media texts use an audio-visual language of resilience to construct their female protagonists.

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Essential to James’s concept of resilience is the idea that an individual’s resilience labour in overcoming gendered adversity often generates value for the social institutions and hierarchal structures that inflicted the harm in the first place. One result of this process is that adversity and oppression produced by such hierarchies become naturalised. Céline Sciamma’s coming of age film Girlhood (2014; originally released in France with the title Bande de Filles, which translates as ‘Girl Gang’) offers us an example of a female protagonist, Marieme, whose resilience gains her access to and acceptance within the patriarchal structures of her world. The dominance of patriarchy is established through the figures of the neighbourhood boys of the Paris banlieues who rule Marieme’s public sphere, while her abusive older brother governs her home life. In several key moments throughout the film, Marieme capitalises on the oppression of other girls in order to gain higher status within her community. However, what is significant about Girlhood is that although Marieme narratively gains strength and power, the film does not work formally to reproduce this affectively for the spectator. In these moments, an ominous soundtrack generates fear for Marieme’s situation, rather than a sense of resilience.

Conversely, the only instances where resilience is affectively conveyed to the spectator is during sequences that affirm Marieme’s connection and friendship with other girls. In one of the highlights of the film, Marieme and her newfound group of friends plan a party in a Paris hotel room, where they try on their glamorous shoplifted dresses (with security tags intact), smoke, drink and dance to Rihanna’s electro-pop ballad ‘Diamonds’. This immersive sequence emphasises the strength Marieme and her friends draw from one another as they fluidly twirl, jumping and lip-syncing in collective harmony. In the song’s final chorus, their inter-group intimacy is highlighted as the girls’ own voices break out into the soundtrack, merging with Rihanna’s vocals. The aural intervention provides a striking instance of affective resilience for the spectator, further immersing us in Marieme’s interior world.

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Throughout Girlhood, Sciamma delivers on our expectations of strength and resilience, however does so in such a way that demonstrates the importance of constructing the kinds of resilience that counter hierarchies of oppression, rather than naturalising their power. In terms of the hierarchical structures at play in Girlhood, the resilience the Diamonds sequence produces works to affirm femininity, rather than the dominance of hyper-masculinity that pervades the film from the outset as the primary power dynamic structuring Marieme’s everyday world. What makes the film so powerful is that it reserves instances of spectatorial affective resilience for moments in which girlhood itself is celebrated.

 

 

Female perspective in The Handmaiden (2016)

What I find most interesting about The Handmaiden may seem like a relatively minor aspect of the film, especially compared to the more salacious ‘scissoring’ scene Shannon Keating (rightly) condemns in her Buzzfeed review. Certainly, The Handmaiden’s explicit sex scenes have drawn substantial critical attention for the way they frame women’s desire through a masculine lens.

For example, the final scene between Hideko and Sook-hee is incongruous with the playful, romantic tone Park Chan-wook strikes throughout the rest of the film. After making their getaway, Hideko and Sook-hee kiss and giggle, sucking on ornate silver ben wa balls before inserting them into each other’s vaginas.  As Keating notes, “it’s hard to view scenes like these as anything other than a product of the male gaze, beautifully composed moments tailor-made for male consumption”.

The way Park frames their bodies in stylised symmetry calls attention to the gaze of the director in a way that undermines and distracts from the pleasure Hideko and Sook-hee find in one another.

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Hideko and Sook-hee kiss, their bodies framed in a stylised shot that emphasises the symmetry between them

Although hardly a minor shortcoming, it would be reductive to write off the entire film based on its questionable constructions of lesbian sex. Instead, I want to discuss what The Handmaiden has to offer in terms of the way it addresses the audience and, at crucial moments, aligns us with its female protagonists.

Overall, Park’s exquisite direction deftly captures the sly eroticism between the Lady Hideko, a Japanese heiress cloistered away in a grandiose estate by her sadistic uncle Kouzuki, and Sook-hee, who is posing as Hideko’s new handmaiden. Sook-hee has been employed by conman Count Fujiwara, who intends to seduce, marry and defraud Hideko of her substantial fortune. Of course, things don’t go entirely to plan, as the double crossings and shifting allegiances between Hideko and Sook-hee over the three acts of the film start to unravel the Count’s devious plot.

After leaving the cinema, there were two scenes that stayed with me. The first is the thoroughly strange and queerly intimate moment in which Sook-hee is bathing Hideko, and obligingly fetches a thimble to smooth down Hideko’s sharp tooth. Guardianfilm critic Peter Bradshaw misses the mark entirely, when he characterises this moment as a “long quasi-blowjob scene”. Here, Bradshaw proves not only ineptitude at reading the visual language of cinema, but also his complete inability to conceive of female sexuality beyond the limitations of heteronormative desire.

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Close-up of Hideko, as Sook-hee files down a sharp tooth

Bradshaw’s clumsy and utterly inadequate phrasing fails to capture any of the delicately shifting power relations the film is drawing between Hideko and Sook-hee who, despite her naiveté and lower social status as Hideko’s maid, plainly considers herself to be far more worldly than her ‘Baby Miss’. In close-up, the film emphasises Hideko’s compliance, her eyes wide and jaw slack as Sook-hee’s finger rubs slowly in and out of her mouth. The intimate act of care between a lady and her handmaiden shifts into sexual fascination as Sook-hee learns to exploit her perceived authority.

I also want to draw attention to the way Park unites the audience with Hideko and Sook-hee’s perspectives near the end of the film. Following Hideko’s escape from the Count’s clutches, her uncle Kouzuki exacts his own revenge on the Count, slicing off his fingers and mocking him for letting a “little girl” like Hideko dupe him. Here, the scene cuts to Sook-hee, turning toward the camera in apparent alarm as we hear Kouzuki say, “but don’t worry. I’ll catch them for you soon.” As two men intrusively search women in the station, Kouzuki’s voiceover triumphantly proclaims that he has “arranged so that no two girls travelling together can leave Kobe.”

In many thrillers, this would serve as an ominous warning to the audience, an indication of Kouzuki’s power within the narrative (and therefore over Hideko). However, immediately prior to Kouzuki’s hubris, Park includes scenes of Hideko’s newly and painstakingly forged passport, alongside a shot of the two women nervously hauling their suitcases through the busy station, Hideko leading the way wearing a man’s suit and closely cropped hair.

Instead of constructing this as a moment in which we’re encouraged to feel afraid for Hideko and Sook-hee, Park lets us in on the joke. We already know that Kouzuki, although vile and abusive, is no evil mastermind, and that Hideko and Sook-hee have cleverly thwarted his attempts to block their freedom. Just like Hideko and Sook-hee, the audience is a step ahead of Kouzuki. In this way, the film constructs him as a pathetic, rather than a powerful opponent. It struck me how easy it would have been for Park to choose this moment to ramp up the pressure of Sook-hee and Hideko’s escape. Instead, the scene is tense, but not because of Kouzuki – rather, the worry stems from whether or not Hideko’s passport will pass muster under the watchful eye of the ticket officer.

Unlike the dispassionate staging of the final sex scene, here Park chooses to align our perspective with Sook-hee and Hideko’s. To me, this suggests that The Handmaiden is interested in the connection, not only between Sook-hee and Hideko, but also in creating a relationship between the film’s central protagonists and the audience. Refreshingly, Park trusts that we’ll find satisfaction, not in tired false tension, but through our emotional connection to Hideko and Sook-hee, and their love for one another.